Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, I always felt that the Mardi Gras in my hometown seemed like a much less exciting version than the one two and half hours away in New Orleans. It was a far tamer affair than what I saw portrayed in movies and television shows over the years from our neighbors to the west. But as a veteran of many a Mardi Gras in the city, I do feel that we Mobilians have one thing over New Orleans: bragging rights.
Did you know that New Orleans wasn’t the first city to host Mardi Gras in the United States? That distinction belongs to the Port City.
Straddling the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile was founded by French settlers in 1702, when the city was the capital of Louisiana. Just a year later, according to the Mobile Carnival Museum, the first Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. was held at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff. Far from a raucous affair, the party gained some momentum several years later, when, in 1711, a papier-mâché bull was brought down Dauphin Street to commemorate the Boeuf Gras (or "fattened calf"), with people singing and dancing along.
With Carnival taking place regularly over the next several decades—past the founding of New Orleans—and well into the 1800s, the festivities were canceled during the Civil War. They resumed in 1866, when Confederate veteran Joe Cain paraded through Union-occupied Mobile on Fat Tuesday, dressed as a fictional Native American chief. Just over a century later, the first “Joe Cain Day” was celebrated, an all-day affair held the Sunday before Mardi Gras.
Despite its history, Mobile has long been overshadowed by New Orleans, a larger city by volume and its nature less subdued. Mobile’s Mardi Gras is a more family-friendly affair with all ages lining the parade route to catch the throws from the krewes' floats, with prizes ranging from doubloons, or imitation coins, to necklaces and plastic cups—and the unofficial symbol of the celebration, MoonPies.
“The Maids of Mirth were the first ones to throw the MoonPie at Mardi Gras,” said Judi Gulledge, executive director of the Mobile Carnival Museum. The Maids of Mirth are one of the all-women Mystic societies that ride during the parade season, Gulledge added, noting that they brought MoonPies back to Mobile in the late 1950s after some of the members discovered them on a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The MoonPie—a layer of marshmallow sandwiched between two graham cracker cookies, then covered with a hard frosting—soon became the most popular Mardi Gras edible in Mobile. (Also, they happened to be especially easy to throw far due to their light weight.) Traditionally, chocolate- and banana-flavored MoonPies were the staples and still maintain their place among the hierarchy. But over the years, more flavors have become available, such as caramel, mint chocolate, and peanut butter. On any given parade night, these treats by the thousands are flung into the sky by float riders.
The parade route in Mobile stretches for several miles, and goes through the downtown part of the city that enjoyed a booming renaissance business-wise in the early 1990s. Gulledge said the increased options in the area—from bars to restaurants to music venues—gives the local and out-of-town visitors something to do in the area besides visiting a parade. Having those choices “spurred more people to come down to visit,” she added.
And since one can’t subsist on MoonPies alone, food stands reminiscent of what you’d find at any fairground are strategically placed along the parade route. Candy apples—caramel, crunchy, and plain—and funnel cakes are among the sweet options. Corn dogs, hot dogs, and hamburgers take care of the savory side, with one notable addition: chicken on a stick (think satay, but Southern-style—juicy, well-seasoned, and deep-fried with a perfect crisp).
On the all-day affairs, dipping into any number of restaurants downtown provides a nice respite in between parades. The original Wintzell’s Oyster House, serving fresh seafood from the Gulf, has been open for more than 70 years. There are newer options, too, like Loda Bier Garten, with its pub-style menu and more than 100 beers on tap.
Over the years, with burgeoning pride, I’ve embraced Mobile as my go-to destination for Mardi Gras. Being in a situation where I’m able to have fun—and move around—holds much more appeal than rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers.
Celebrating in Mobile has special meaning, too, as I’m able to show my 11-year-old daughter—a native New Yorker—the pageantry of it all when we go to visit. And when she comes back home with dozens of beads to share with her classmates and teachers, she’s also able to drop some knowledge on them and let them know where Mardi Gras in the U.S. really got its start.